Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming Summer 2016 issue of the Miami Rail. The full interview can be found at miamirail.org.
New Zealander artist Susan Te Kahurangi King’s debut exhibition in North America opens this summer at ICA Miami, curated by Tina Kukielski. Recently appointed to the executive directorship of ART21, an organization specializing in digital media about contemporary art, Kukielski met with Sara Roffino in her New York office to discuss her interest in King’s work, the challenges of curating an exhibition of work by a nonverbal artist, and the next steps for the organization she now leads.
Sara Roffino (Miami Rail): In January, you took on the role of executive director of Art21. What do we have to look forward to from the organization?
Tina Kukielski: I’m completely indebted to the legacy that has been built here by my predecessor, Susan Sollins, who was the entrepreneur who invented this format around which to talk about the creative process and the ideas embedded in artworks in a unique and necessary way. But I would be a fool if I didn’t acknowledge that the landscape around digital media is changing really rapidly. I believe Art21 sits at the nexus of communication about artists’ ideas and processes vis-à-vis it being a conduit to the artists’ voice. At the same time, we have a lot of catching up to do, partly because of the ways technology has changed.
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Roffino: In some ways, being the executive director of a nonprofit is very different from being a curator; in other ways, not so much. Can you tell me about your decision to make this change?
Kukielski: As a curator, I would say I’ve had two lives. One was the life I lived in New York at the Whitney, where I was really focused on young emerging artists, mostly working in the centers of Los Angeles and New York. And then I had an amazing opportunity to co-curate an international biennial — the Carnegie International — that completely blew open the door for me to think about art from a global perspective and to think and engage with artists who are living in very disparate parts of the world and artists who are distinguishing their practice because of where they come from or where they choose to live. Despite the homogenizing of communication channels, place still is invariably important. That really was a transformation for me as a curator to think across all disciplines and to explore a world of art at its outer limits. Also through that process, I got much more engaged with technology.
Roffino: There’s really a hybridization of your vision and the preexisting mission of Art21 — a real opportunity, it seems. How does the selection process work?
Kukielski: It’s myself and the curator on staff, Wes Miller, but we haven’t actually had a conversation about a new group of artists yet, because when I entered we were already committed to 16 fantastic, talented artists that we’ll be going public with in the next month. We have done practical analyses of the artists that have been in past seasons, and we try to be very conscious that there is not one art world, there are so many art worlds.
Roffino: So you both come together with a list of names?
Kukielski: I’m looking all the time. I go see art. I’m still a curator at heart — being in the artists’ studios, being in the exhibition space and reading about upcoming art projects is still very much a part of my day-to-day and how I work. I want us to be a thought leader around the ideas of art today, so it’s about being responsive in order to be that thought leader.
Roffino: And you most recently curated a show by the New Zealand artist Susan Te Kahurangi King for ICA Miami. How did this project come together?
Kukielski: Before I started at Art21, I was consulting for the ICA, just kind of having regular conversations about art and ideas with Alex Gartenfeld, their chief curator. I helped Alex conceive of the program around this upcoming season, and as a byproduct of those conversations we started to talk about artists and ideas that are interesting to us and that felt urgent. I saw two projects of Susan’s that were done by Chris Byrne, who is a curator and artist –– a show of her work at Andrew Edlin Gallery, in New York, and a booth of her work at the Outsider Art Fair, both in 2014. I saw her work and was like: “How did I not know about this artist?”
When I discovered that she is in her sixties, I dug deeper and discovered that she is nonverbal and was eventually diagnosed as being severely autistic, although I didn’t know that at the time because it’s only recently come out in some of the conversations around her work. So I presented the idea to Alex, and because of the way he sees the ICA as being a kunsthalle for art and being able to give an artist their first museum opportunity, it seemed like an ideal partnership. Without knowing all that much about Susan, the ICA really put their belief behind me and supported the project.
Roffino: A documentary about Susan was released in 2012, and it leaves off at a point where [her] family seems really unsure about how to engage with the art world and how to go about letting the work be seen. I’m curious about how they decided to engage with the art world.
Kukielski: The family is amazing. There were certain members of the family, Susan’s grandmother and her mother, who really understood that she had a unique gift. After the documentary team showed up and started to film Susan, there was a transformation in that the family realized that there really is an audience for this work. They also discovered that by starting a Facebook page and growing a following there, too. Both of those things allowed them to embrace the idea of showing her work while not having to let it go. They definitely have ambitions to try to place the work in public collections.
Roffino: She has produced several thousand drawings — what is the focus of the exhibition?
Kukielski: There are several bodies of work represented in the show, which is really a survey of her work, and the centerpiece of the show are works from the late ’60s throughout the ’70s when she was in her twenties. These works are quasi-figurative, but in their composition and very dense arrangement, they are kind of like abstract landscapes and there is a real complexity of composition.
Roffino: Susan didn’t draw for about 20 years and then started again fairly recently. How does the work that she has made since starting to draw again compare with the earlier works?
Kukielski: They don’t have any presence of the figure anymore. They’re non-representational, based on pattern, form, line and color. I definitely see a pretty marked shift in her palette, but it’s hard to know if these are just the markers her family is providing her with or if — I actually have begun to wonder if her vision is changing so that she is more responsive to bold color juxtapositions. It’s hard to know.
Roffino: Have you worked with other artists who have limited communication?
Kukielski: No. On some deep psychological level, I knew this would be a challenge, especially at the same time I’m taking over an art organization that is all about the artist’s voice. I thought a lot about what it means for an artist to not have a voice.
Roffino: It makes people very hesitant to say anything about the work. How did you deal with this?
Kukielski: I’m a little bit in a double bind being a curator of a show like this. I don’t have any doubt in my mind that Susan’s work deserves to be seen and deserves to be appreciated as art, and I do believe that we can glean some ideas about communication from her work. But I am also very sensitive to not assuming my voice to be her voice and trying to be very sensitive to the fact that I’ll never have the answers to certain questions about the work — about what she sees in the work and her experiences of the work personally. At the same time, though, as a curator and as the author of an exhibition, you have to do your best effort to fill in where you can, so for me it’s about creating a show that can embrace her work and present it with the mastery and attention it deserves while also being sensitive to helping the viewer to understand the artist’s personal experience.
Sara Roffino is a senior editor at Art+Auction and a graduate student in art history at Hunter College.
© Miami Rail. Founded in 2012, the Miami Rail is an editorially independent expansion of the Brooklyn Rail. Produced four times a year in print and online, the Miami Rail is the only publication exclusively dedicated to in-depth critical coverage of art and culture in Miami.
If you go
What: An exhibition of work by Susan Te Kahurangi King, curated by Tina Kukielski.
When: July 8-Oct. 30.
Where: ICA Miami, 4040 NE Second Ave. in the Design District.
Related event: A collaborative audience event inspired by King’s work ‘Shut Up and Draw,’ is slated for 2 p.m. Sept. 24.